Notes on Classes by Alfred D. Norris, August 15-23, 1953
When we have become accustomed to taking seriously the idea of “contending earnestly for the faith”, sometimes it is difficult to see that the faith has other things than “contention” in its make-up. When “the Truth” is so often contrasted with the falsehood around, we may not always be able to appreciate the Truth in its own right, without aiming a stone at the falsehoods as we think of them. And the difficulty is not new. The Apostle Paul was compassed about with so many heresies, that he might have been pardoned if he had smelt a heresy whenever he thought about the Gospel. For if he preached a free salvation to all nations, a Jew would confront him with the proviso: “but only if they are circumcised”. If he proclaimed the grace of God as competent to forgive the worst of sinners, some lascivious person would interpret this to mean that the more he sinned, the more scope there would be for grace to operate. If he announced the vanity of flesh in the things of the Spirit, he would need to fight on two fronts: against those on the one hand who said, “In that case let us torment flesh so that it won’t assert itself;” and against those on the other who answered, “No! In that case let flesh do as it likes, for it makes no difference.”
And when we realise how easily Paul could find his work undone by Judaisers, or teachers of licence, or worldly men and competitors, who followed in his trail, we could scarcely have been surprised if all his letters had the temper of Galatians, or of some parts of the two Letters to the Corinthians. But they have not. 1 and 2 Thessalonians are full of robust confidence in the charitable and large-hearted faith of the Christians in Thessalonica (even though there is gentle counsel about false expectations of the Lord’s near coming, and thoughtful warning about the abomination called the Man of Sin). Romans is deeply conscious of the errors around, but finds it possible to proceed gravely and almost dispassionately along the course of its sublime reasoning; and the Epistles of the First Imprisonment are full of serene confidence and deep love for those to whom they are addressed. Scarcely anywhere, indeed, except in Galatians, is there a complete absence of some bright recollection of the faith of those who are addressed.
In Ephesians, however, we have something quite unequalled in Paul’s writings or out of them. There were presumably heresies in the city of Diana of the Ephesians, and the Letter perhaps shows that it is not quite unconscious of them: but it does not allow this to deflect it from its chosen course. There were doubtless doctrinal problems waiting to be unravelled: but nowhere does this Letter imitate the logical processes of Romans. And already there may have been traces of those errors so sternly rebuked in the Apocalypse, but no direct rebuke to them is offered here. There is, in fact, perhaps nothing so serene and so exalted in all the New Testament than the first three chapters of this letter, and if the more practical character of the three last chapters lowers the tone a little, it is due to this reason and to no other.
Here, then, if anywhere, we can learn of the sublime heights of the Gospel without arguing about it: and from this Letter if we can learn it from anywhere, we can be taught about the love of God so as to know it in our inward man.
It would be foreign to our intentions to start by attempting to analyse the Letter. Of course, the inspired writings of the Spirit are not in the same class as ordinary human letters, but it is surely not unimportant that 21 out of the New Testament’s 27 books are written in letter-form, a mode that is quite unknown in the Old. It has been pointed out as typical of the new state of affairs that the profound but impersonal utterance of prophets should now be exchanged for the intimate and personal counsel of letters. And there is none of us who would not be faintly surprised to find his correspondence, however weighty, analysed in the way expositors are apt to do with the Letters of the New Testament.
We can reasonably suppose that those to whom this letter was read in the first instance - in Ephesus, and probably also in Laodicea and the other cities of Roman Asia - would have a good idea what it was about, without needing the assistance of a lecturer in theology to analyse for them what the Apostle’s plan was, and to tell them the meanings of the theological concepts which he used: and it would be good to think that something of the same kind was possible to-day. Of course, this does not mean that either they or we can sound the apostle’s profundity with a single probe: possibly we shall never do that, for the depths of the Spirit are unsearchable; and we in this day have the additional difficulty that we understand less easily both the language and the modes of thought which were so familiar to them.
Nevertheless, most of these difficulties can be overcome, and it will be our purpose to try to deal with them so that we can put ourselves back in the position of the ordinary men and women - who nevertheless were saints - to whom the letter was written, and read it with the freshness which comes to those who feel that it was also written to themselves. We shall move slowly towards that goal, starting at the beginning of the Letter and pausing from time to time as we meet matters which demand discussion, and then at the end trying to pull all that we have learned together and read the whole letter with instructed eyes.